The Meaning of Emotional Pain
To understand pain, ask "how," not "why."
Posted July 8, 2011
Dwelling on the possible causes of emotional pain is more likely to exacerbate than ameliorate it. This is especially true when the hidden purpose of examining the possible causes is to assign blame.
To justify blame, we tend to magnify pain. Attributing blame then stimulates anger to punish the perceived offender. Biologically, the association of pain/vulnerability with anger is almost irresistible; anger has survival-based analgesic and amphetamine effects - it temporarily numbs pain and provides a surge of energy and confidence to ward-off threat. But each repetition of this process reinforces perceived damage and vulnerability by making defense seem more necessary.
Over time, the blame-anger response congeals into chronic resentment, which is a generalized, automatic defensive system geared to protect an ego made fragile by the perceived need of protection. To the resentful, painful emotions are not motivations to heal and improve but punishments inflicted by an unfair world. They try to control what other people think by devaluing or coercing them, thereby reinforcing the vulnerability they seek to avoid.
The Illusion of Control: Looking for It in All the Wrong Places
Consider how little control we have over the things that most profoundly influence our lives. How many of us got to choose our parents? Did we decide the illnesses, accidents, medications, and substance use of our mothers during pregnancy? Who decided where and when they were born, how much money their families would have, what early childhood sickness or accidents they would experience, which schools they would go to and what kind of teachers and friends they would find there? Who chose whether other children would like or bully them, support or antagonize them, respect or humiliate them?
Controlling the Meaning of Your Life
You cannot control most of the major influences on your life, but you have absolute control over what they mean to you. If you control the meaning of events in your life by creating as much value as you can, you will have a sense of purpose and personal power. If you control it by devaluing yourself or others, you create a chronic sense of powerlessness, characterized by roller-coaster rides of adrenalin-driven resentment that crash into depressed moods.
Rather than focus on the possible causes of pain and vulnerability, try to sort out what each hurtful incident means to you and what you can do to heal and improve. But do this important assessment with self-compassion, not self-criticism.
My spouse cheated on me.
What does that mean to me?
I'm alone, isolated, betrayed.
What can I do to improve and heal?
I can recognize that I have the strength, resilience, and value to heal this hurt over time. I will stay true to my deepest values, focus on creating more value in my life, reach out to friends and other loved ones, recognize human frailty in my spouse and in myself, evaluate my options for a better future.
Preoccupation with the causes of emotional pain tends to push us deeper into pain and bitterness; interpreting its meaning reveals motivation to heal and improve and moves us toward a brighter future.
Meaning vs. Expression
Expressing negative emotions, without changing the meaning you give them, merely exercises them. Exercise sometimes produces exhaustion, but exhaustion never equals resolution or healing. Worse, expressing emotions repeatedly habituates them. "Crying the same blues over and over" creates more than monotony. It causes habitual sequences of neural firing that lead to repetitive, seemingly automatic behavior, such as having the same fight with your loved one over and over.
If you find that you repeatedly make the same mistake or the same kinds of mistakes, you probably express negative emotions (or stuff them) without altering the meaning you give them, i.e., without focus on healing and improving.
Some people are fortunate enough to resist the preoccupation with blame that characterizes the age of entitlement. But even for those lucky few, the search for causes of emotional pain has little chance of alleviating it. The causes of distressed conditions, which are usually complex interactions of many variables, are not often the same things that maintain them. Focus on possible causes is more likely to make you feel damaged and vulnerable than lead to corrective or beneficial action.
Knowing how you got into a hole won't do much to get you out of it, but it can help you avoid holes in the future. Causal analysis is easier and more efficient after healing and improving, when more mental resources are available to accurately assess the causes and devise strategies for future well being. Get out of the hole first, and consider how to avoid another one later.